Life was thrown out of gear in the hill districts of Manipur Wednesday in the wake of a shutdown for which a call was given by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur (ATSUM), the apex body of the state’s tribal students, to demand the tabling of the Hill Areas Committee (HAC)-recommended draft Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) Amendment Bill, 2021 – which seeks greater financial and administrative autonomy in the hill region – during the ongoing budget session of the state Assembly.
Ignoring the ATSUM’s demand hanging fire for months, the BJP-led Manipur government’s tribal affairs and hills minister Letpao Haokip introduced the 6th and 7th Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Amendment Bills, 2022, on Tuesday. The Bills were initially not part of the agenda of the House on that day.
Subsequently, the Manipur police arrested five executive members of the ATSUM, which had announced a 24-hour shutdown from 6 pm of August 3 till 6 pm on August 4 in the hill districts over its ADC Bill demand. Denouncing the arrest of its members, the ATSUM advanced its proposed shutdown to start from 6 pm of August 2.
Responding to the ATSUM’s bandh call, many tribal bodies enforced the shutdown in the hill districts, which saw schools, colleges, shops and business establishments remaining closed. Inter-district passenger buses stayed off the roads, while many goods-laden trucks were stranded along the national highways.
In August last year, the HAC of the Manipur Assembly recommended the new ADC Bill with the avowed objective to ensure equitable development in the hill districts. The HAC maintained that the existing ADC law had various deficiencies that resulted in underdevelopment of the hill region as compared to more developed Imphal valley over the years.
The HAC-recommended draft ADC Bill seeks to amend the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, 1971 in order to provide more autonomy to the HAC and 6 ADCs. Some of the provisions of this Bill include an increase in the number of the ADC constituencies, creation of the Hill Areas Secretariat for managing and coordinating the working of all the ADCs, setting up of the ADC’s Executive Committee, more effective involvement of the HAC in development and economic planning, including budget allocations, for the entire hill areas, among other features.
There was resistance against the HAC-recommended ADC Bill from sections of the valley-based political leaders and social groups. Citing some legal issues, the N Biren Singh-led Manipur government did not bring this Bill and has now tabled two new Bills in the House.
Criticising the new Bills, former MP BD Behring told The Indian Express that the 6th ADC amendment Bill has a financial aspect but the 7th amendment Bill does not have it. “How is it possible that the Bill on the same subject has been drafted differently? Does it mean that one is going to be referred to the HAC and another is to be passed directly by the House bypassing the HAC,” he asked.
The BJP’s ally Naga People’s Front (NPF)’s MLA Ram Muivah, however, claimed in the Assembly Wednesday that the new Bills fulfilled 50 per cent of the demands made by the ATSUM. He also claimed that the 20 MLAs from the hill districts in the 60-member House were in favour of the new Bills.
Article 371 C of the Constitution of India provides for a separate scheme for the administration of the hill areas of Manipur through the HAC and District Councils, which for the autonomous hill districts are vested with legislative powers on specified subjects and are allotted certain sources of taxation. They have also been given power to manage their resources, public health, sanitation services and primary education, and undertake administrative and welfare services including development and economic planning.
To give effect to these provisions, Parliament passed the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils law in 1971since Manipur was then a Union Territory.